GILLES DE RAIS
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Gilles de Rais
( September 1405 – 26 October 1440)
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval Baron de Rais was a knight and lord from Brittany, Anjou and Poitou, a leader in the French army, and a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc. He is best known for his reputation and later conviction as a confessed serial killer of children. A member of the House of Montmorency-Laval, Gilles de Rais grew up under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather and increased his fortune by marriage. He earned the favour of the Duke of Brittany and was admitted to the French court. From 1427 to 1435, Gilles served as a commander in the Royal Army, and fought alongside Joan of Arc against the English and their Burgundian allies during the Hundred Years' War, for which he was appointed Marshal of France. In 1434/1435, he retired from military life, depleted his wealth by staging an extravagant theatrical spectacle of his own composition, and was accused of dabbling in the occult. After 1432 Gilles was accused of engaging in a series of child murders, with victims possibly numbering in the hundreds. The killings came to an end in 1440, when a violent dispute with a clergyman led to an ecclesiastical investigation which brought the crimes to light, and attributed them to Gilles. At his trial the parents of missing children in the surrounding area and Gilles' own confederates in crime testified against him. Gilles was condemned to death and hanged at Nantes on 26 October 1440. Gilles de Rais is believed to be the inspiration for the 1697 fairy tale "Bluebeard" ("Barbe bleue") by Charles Perrault. His life is the subject of several modern novels, and referenced in a number of rock bands' albums and songs.
In 1438, according to testimony at his trial from the priest Eustache Blanchet and the cleric François Prelati, de Rais sent out Blanchet to seek individuals who knew alchemy and demon summoning. Blanchet contacted Prelati in Florence and convinced him to take service with his Master. Having reviewed the magical books of Prelati and a traveling Breton, de Rais chose to initiate experiments, the first taking place in the lower hall of his castle at Tiffauges, attempting to summon a demon named "Barron. "
De Rais provided a contract with the demon for riches that Prelati was to give to the demon at a later time.
As no demon manifested after three tries, the Marshal grew frustrated with the lack of results. Prelati responded that the demon Barron was angry and required the offering of parts of a child. De Rais provided these remnants in a glass vessel at a future evocation. All of this was to no avail, and the occult experiments left him bitter and with his wealth severely depleted.
In his confession, Gilles mentioned the first assaults on children occurred between spring 1432 and spring 1433. The first murders occurred at Champtocé-sur-Loire; however, no account of these murders survived. Shortly after, Gilles moved to Machecoul where, as the record of his confession states, he killed, or ordered to be killed, a great but uncertain number of children after he sodomized them.
Forty naked bodies of children were discovered in Machecoul in 1437.
The first documented case of child-snatching and murder concerns a boy of twelve called Jeudon, an apprentice to the furrier Guillaume Hilairet. Gilles de Rais' cousins, Gilles de Sillé and Roger de Briqueville, asked the furrier to lend them the boy to take a message to Machecoul, and, when Jeudon did not return, the two noblemen told the inquiring furrier that they were ignorant of the boy's whereabouts and suggested he had been carried off by thieves at Tiffauges to be made into a page.
In Gilles de Rais' trial, the events were testified to by Hillairet and his wife, the boy's father Jean Jeudon, and five others from Machecoul.
In his 1971 biography of Gilles de Rais, Jean Benedetti tells how the children who fell into Rais's hands were put to death:
Gilles' bodyservant Étienne Corrillaut, known as Poitou, was an accomplice in many of the crimes and testified that his master stripped the child naked and hung him with ropes from a hook to prevent him from crying out, then masturbated upon the child's belly or thighs. If the victim was a boy he would touch his genitals (particularly testicles) and buttocks. Taking the victim down, Rais comforted the child and assured him he only wanted to play with him. Gilles then either killed the child himself or had the child killed by his cousin Gilles de Sillé, Poitou or another bodyservant called Henriet.
The victims were killed by decapitation, cutting of their throats, dismemberment, or breaking of their necks with a stick. A short, thick, double-edged sword called a braquemard was kept at hand for the murders.
Poitou further testified that Rais sometimes abused the victims (whether boys or girls) before wounding them and at other times after the victim had been slashed in the throat or decapitated. According to Poitou, Rais disdained the victim's sexual organs, and took "infinitely more pleasure in debauching himself in this manner ... than in using their natural orifice, in the normal manner."
In his own confession, Gilles testified that “when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed”.
Poitou testified that he and Henriet burned the bodies in the fireplace in Gilles' room. The clothes of the victim were placed into the fire piece by piece so they burned slowly and the smell was minimized. The ashes were then thrown into the cesspit, the moat, or other hiding places.
The last recorded murder was of the son of Éonnet de Villeblanche and his wife Macée. Poitou paid 20 sous to have a page's doublet made for the victim, who was then assaulted, murdered and incinerated in August 1440.
The extensive witness testimony convinced the judges that there were adequate grounds for establishing the guilt of the accused. After Rais admitted to the charges on 21 October, the court canceled a plan to torture him into confessing. Peasants of the neighboring villages had earlier begun to make accusations that their children had entered Gilles' castle begging for food and had never been seen again. The transcript, which included testimony from the parents of many of these missing children as well as graphic descriptions of the murders provided by Gilles' accomplices, was said to be so lurid that the judges ordered the worst portions to be stricken from the record.
The precise number of Gilles' victims is not known, as most of the bodies were burned or buried. The number of murders is generally placed between 80 and 200; a few have conjectured numbers upwards of 600. The victims ranged in age from six to eighteen and included both sexes, but were predominantly boys.
On 23 October 1440, the secular court heard the confessions of Poitou and Henriet and condemned them both to death, followed by Gilles' death sentence on 25 October. Gilles was allowed to make confession, and his request to be buried in the church of the monastery of Notre-Dame des Carmes in Nantes was granted.
Execution by hanging and burning was set for Wednesday 26 October. At nine o‘clock, Gilles and his two accomplices made their way in procession to the place of execution on the Ile de Biesse.
Gilles is said to have addressed the crowd with contrite piety and exhorted Henriet and Poitou to die bravely and think only of salvation. Gilles' request to be the first to die had been granted the day before. At eleven o'clock, the brush at the platform was set afire and Rais was hanged. His body was cut down before being consumed by the flames and claimed by "four ladies of high rank" for burial.